Modes Explained 5: Parallel Modes

Ok, one last post on modal theory… then we can start getting in to the practical stuff.


Relative Mode Theory (aka ‘Modes in Series’)

So far we’ve been mostly using relative mode theory – e.g. where C Ionian and A Aeolian share the same notes, but have different roots. But now we are going to learn to use our modes in parallel. In contrast, parallel modes have the same roots but different notes.

Where C Ionian and A Aeolian are relative, C Ionian and C Aeolian are parallel modes. F major and F minor can be called parallel scales (or even parallel keys).

Comparing the Major & Natural Minor Scales

In the figure below, we can see that the first, second, fourth and fifth notes of these scales are the same…

…but, because of the different tone-semitone structure, the third, sixth and seventh notes are all one fret lower. Notes that are one fret lower are said to be ‘flattened’ and are represented with a ♭.

In the following diagrams I have numbered each scale degree with a number for easier reference. Sticking to convention, the first and last notes are still being labelled as R, rather than 1 and 8.

We can relate all modes back to the major scale in this way. Using ‘♭’ to represent ‘flattened notes’, and ‘♯’ to represent ‘sharpened notes’ (i.e. notes that are one fret higher).

Comparing the Modes with the Major Scale

When analysing the modes in parallel we find that the modes are all pretty similar to each other. In fact, each mode is only one note different to another mode. For instance Lydian and Ionian are only one note different. The same is true for Dorian and Aeolian. The following images show each mode, with an arrow indicating the note that has moved.

Here’s the same information collated into an easier-to-read table.

Lydian 1 2 3 ♯4 5 6 7
Ionian 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Mixolydian 1 2 3 4 5 6 ♭7
Dorian 1 2 ♭3 4 5 6 ♭7
Aeolian 1 2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7
Phrygian 1 ♭2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7
Locrian 1 ♭2 ♭3 4 ♭5 ♭6 ♭7

(NB: If you’ve never encountered such things as “♭3s” or “♯4s” before, or used scale formulas like those in the table I suggest that you hone up on your scale degrees and intervals before moving on with the rest of the modes series.)

The Character of Each Mode

Play through the modes in this order – starting with Lydian and then progressively lowering one note each time until you arrive at Locrian. You should find that Lydian is the ‘brightest’ or most consonant mode, and that, each mode is progressively darker than the last, until you get to the Locrian mode which is extremely dark and dissonant.

This table has the brightest modes on the left and the darkest modes on the right. Each mode gets progressively darker as you flatten more notes.

Lydian Ionian Mixolydian Dorian Aeolian Phrygian Locrian
1 sharp   1 flat 2 flats 3 flats 4 flats 5 flats

I strongly urge you to play through each of these scales and find your own description of each mode. The following list is how I think of each mode, and should help get you started.

  • Lydian Very consonant
  • Ionian Sweet and cheerful
  • Mixolydian Bright like the major scale, however the b7 lends it a more ‘bluesy’ edge
  • Dorian Not particularly bright or dark. Popular for jazz-tinged blues.
  • Aeolian The natural minor scale, it typifies ‘sad’ songs
  • Phrygian Dark and ‘characterful’. The b2 gives it a distinct ‘Spanish’ flavour.
  • Locrian Dissonant

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